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A Social Experiment in the 1700s


In Georgia, things would be different. People would live simply and fairly, without fear of religious persecution. They would produce raw materials for the King of England, while working off their debts on their allotted plots of land. And they would live by a moral code that included a ban on alcohol and slaves. In short, life would be good!

A memorial for Tomochichi in Savannah
And why not? Life in England in 1732 wasn't exactly a bowl of peaches, especially for those in debt and the poor. When people couldn't pay their bills, they were sent to jail. The jails were terrible places that lacked even the most basic creature comforts. For them, packing up and moving to the "New World" meant new opportunities, especially in a colony as ambitious and idealistic as Georgia.

Georgia was established to help the poor, protect South Carolina against the Spanish in Florida, and produce materials such as silk and olives for England. It issued each colonist 50 acres of land, and its motto was "Non Sibi Sed Allis," which means "not for themselves but for others" in Latin. Thousands of people signed up to go - so many that the people in charge (called the Trustees) had to set up a committee to interview prospective settlers. The colonists who couldn't pay their way over had to work as "indentured servants" for 5-7 years before receiving their allotted plot of land.

Even before the first ship set sail from England, James Oglethorpe, the leader of the new colony, instituted a set of rules he called prohibitions to make the place as "perfect" as possible. They were:

Steph sits where Oglethorpe pitched his tent on his first night in Georgia
Prohibition 1: No rum, brandy or spirits - though wine, beer and ale were allowed.

Prohibition 2: No lawyers (Oglethorpe felt that each man should be able to speak for himself or through a friend, and that lawyers were unnecessary)

Prohibition 3: No black slaves or negroes (Although Georgia was the only free colony, people still "borrowed" slaves from South Carolina for construction work)

Prohibition 4: No Catholics (But everyone else had the right to freedom of religion)

In his mind, these prohibitions were essential if Georgia were to succeed. Alcohol would demoralize the colonists, while Catholics would endanger them. The Catholics, he felt, would ally with the Spanish (who occupied Florida at the time) if the Spanish were ever to attack, because they shared a common religion. As for why the ban against blacks and lawyers…well, that depends on who you talk to!

On February 12, 1733, the lucky colonists - 114 of them - arrived in Georgia. They landed, eager to start their wonderful new lives.

The colonists landed here
On that first day Oglethorpe met an Indian named Tomochichi, the mico (leader) of the Lower Creek Indians. Tomochichi was accompanied by a woman named Mary Musgrove, a half-white Indian princess whose traditional name was Cousaponakeesa, and together, they led the welcome party. Many of the first meetings between colonizers in other areas and Native Americans were far from friendly, but this one was all smiles! Tomochichi wanted to ensure that his relationship with Oglethorpe was productive, not destructive.

According to all the history books I read, he succeeded. Tomochichi and Oglethorpe became good friends. From the beginning, Oglethorpe and his troops only settled where Tomochichi had given them permission. In May 1733, two months after arriving, they signed a Treaty of Friendship, which allowed the English to settle on any lands but Sapelo, Ossabaw and St. Catherine's Islands. Years later, the two even traveled to England together to meet the King! Tomochichi presented the King with the feather of a bald eagle to symbolize power. This was the first time we know of that the eagle was used as an American symbol.

Things were going well, but by the end of the second year 50 people had died. That's close to half the total number of people in the colony! Many of the colonists came down with a fever (probably malaria) that probably left them wishing they were back in their home country. Their new home was Savannah, a town located right on the riverbank and consequently, a haven for mosquitoes and other carriers of tropical diseases.

The whole colony might have been wiped out had it not been for Dr. Samuel Nunez, a Sephardic Jew who arrived in Georgia with a boatload of other Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in Portugal. The Trustees knew they were coming and had instructed Oglethorpe not to let them stay. Why? Because they were Jews and, like the Catholics, not very welcome in this new land. But Dr. Nunez knew how to treat the fever and, according to Oglethorpe, "saved the colony." And so it was that religious tolerance was forced upon the colonists - they didn't really want to live among Jews, but they couldn't exactly turn them away after one had saved their family and friends.

These were the first stories I was told when I arrived in Savannah. The Georgia utopia was a place that, despite its flaws, learned to be tolerant of others (such as the Jews) and respect the rights of those who had been there before, as was the case of Tomochichi and his tribe. Moreover, no one was allowed to own more than 500 acres of land, so everyone remained more or less equal, financially.

Unfortunately, little by little, things changed. The Georgia colonists, frustrated by their lack of cheap labor, pressured the Trustees to abolish the ban on slavery. They watched with envy as colonists in the Carolinas got richer and richer, and they wanted the same. In 1751, their wish was granted and the Trustees changed the law. The colonizers started producing rice because it could be easily harvested by slaves. Before long, slaves made up one-third of the population of Georgia.

Once people started to make money from rice crops, they demanded the right to own as much land as they wanted. Once again, the Trustees gave in. Without any laws to get in their way, people could now own all the land they could afford. Some owned as much as 75,000 acres! Meanwhile, indentured servants, slaves and the poor - the people who were providing the cheap labor and helping create the economic boom - were unable to cash in. By the time of the American Revolution, the rice plantation owners held one-third of the wealth of colonial Georgia.

The Savannah of today shares some similarities with the Savannah of the late 1700s. There are still big gaps between the rich and the poor. A lot of people are struggling to pay rent and save some money, others are living large in million-dollar homes furnished with crystal chandeliers, Mercedes and hired help. Walking through downtown, I was both impressed and disgusted with the opulent houses, restaurants and hotels.

The racism, however, only disgusted me. It was upsetting to learn that the sterotypes about racism and the South still live on in some people. While studying a map, I was offered directions by a man who whispered under his breath: "Don't take this route - that's where all the blacks live." Wow. Because of our common color, he felt like he could say this to me.

This one's being sold for $9 million!
What started as an experiment in egalitarian living quickly turned into a "get rich quick" scheme that has outlasted both Oglethorpe and Tomochichi. Once Georgia allowed slavery, it gave in to the easy money of the rice fields and set in stone many prejudices. Don't get me wrong - Savannah today is a charming and beautiful city and many of its citizens have moved on from the past. I just can't help but wonder what it would look like today, if Oglethorpe's vision been allowed to flourish.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - The mysterious and spooky disappearance of an entire colony!
Irene - Could we be speaking Dutch instead of English?
Irene - The Quakers: peaceful individuals or radical rebels?
Team - Hero? villain? The team gets MAD about Columbus